A star-studded cast and dazzling cinematography help elevate the adventurous Everest, while clichéd dialogue and some abrupt tonal shifts keep it from summiting the highest heights.
The film’s plot follows a now infamous 1996 expedition to the peak of Mount Everest that ended in disaster for many involved. Though many first-person accounts have been written about the incident (the most prominent being “Into Thin Air” by Jon Krakauer, a novelist who was there covering the climb for a magazine), Everest doesn’t base its story on any one novel but tries to walk a thin line between respectfully portraying the recent past and providing white-knuckle thrills.
Director Baltasar Kormákur’s effectiveness at the former may be in question (Krakauer’s already called it “total bull”), but he often does the later with stirring action that feels very effective on the big screen. The second half of the film throws audiences into a maelstrom of snow and misery atop the world’s highest mountain, but takes a long time to get to that point amidst some heavy-handed setup scenes.
In such a packed cast it’s interesting that Jason Clarke gets top billing as expedition leader Rob Hall. He may not be the best known actor in Everest but he certainly fits the part of a climbing expert whose work and expertise helped pave the way for Mt. Everest’s modern commercialization. The beard helps – this is very beard-heavy movie. Jake Gyllenhaal has a smaller role as a rival guide who eventually teams with the more level-headed Hall to get their clients to the summit.
Much of the first half establishes Hall’s careful and methodical approach towards tackling Everest, as he trains men (and a Japanese woman who’s summited the 6 other tallest peaks in the world) to exist in an environment that’s too high for most planes. The arduous journey attracts people like hardy Texan Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin), writer Jon Krakauer (Michael Kelly) and soft-spoken mail man Doug Hansen (John Hawkes). They all have personal reasons for being there, weather it’s distancing themselves from the dark cloud that follows them in regular life, documenting the climb, or proving to a bunch of school children that anything’s possible.
If that sounds familiar it’s because it often is. With so many characters to service it’s tough to establish real insight or internal lives, and Everest often opts for rough archetypes instead. Keira Knightley and Robin Wright may have the most thankless roles – both portray worried wives thousands of miles away from the mountain. In fact, Wright’s casting alone spoils one of the film’s more unique surprises as the prominent actress is given very little screen time up to a point and then springs into action.
Regardless, they do help lend stakes to a movie that becomes increasingly immersive as it begins to rush headlong towards danger. Everest is truly made for the big screen and wows in IMAX 3D. The sound design alone helps you feel the whipping winds and swirling snow, while the mostly stellar effects and panoramic shots sell the reality of being 8,000 metres above sea level. I can’t imagine that it’ll maintain its effectiveness outside of the IMAX experience, but while Everest is barreling along it’s a sight to behold.
The same can’t be said of the overstuffed story, which ekes out sympathy for some characters and leaves other to die on the side of the mountain with hardly a second glance. Everest was crowded on May 10, 1996 when a storm struck and Rob Hall’s expedition faced chaos, so different stories obviously had to be prioritized. Difficulty arises from giving a lot of weight to some climber’s plights and very little to others. In short it feels uneven, especially as it approaches a rushed ending.
Even if Everest has trouble maintaining intensity through the home stretch, audiences willing to overlook some tin-eared dialogue and telegraphed twists should find much to like here. At the very least it’s a fun game of playing spot-that-character-actor (Hey, it’s Martin Henderson! And Sam Worthington!), made doubly challenging by copious beards and parkas . The rare film that truly benefits from the IMAX format (with the help of some stunning cinematography), Everest furnishes big-scale adventure while occasionally stumbling story-wise. Put another way: the air is thin at the top and sometimes the lack of oxygen makes the movie say stupid things.
Directed by Baltasar Kormákur
Runtime: 121 minutes